SXSW Filmmaker Profile: Leah Meyerhoff (Director – ‘I Believe in Unicorns’)

I Believe In Unicorns tells the story of a teenage girl living with her disabled mother who runs away from home with an older boy. As their new relationship turns abusive, she attempts to escape to a fantasy world but ultimately must learn to face her stark reality and reconnect with the life she left behind.

From Student Academy Award nominated director Leah Meyerhoff (Twitch), Oscar nominated producer Heather Rae (Frozen River), and Emmy Award winning executive producer Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), I Believe In Unicorns stars emerging talents Natalia Dyer (The Healer), Peter Vack (I Just Want My Pants Back), Julia Garner (Electrick Children), Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) and the director’s mother Toni Meyerhoff.

Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Director Leah Meyerhoff. ‘I Believe in Unicorns‘ screens as part of the Narrative Competition on Sunday, March 9Monday, March 10 and Thursday, March 13 in Austin, Texas.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ at SXSW FilmHERE

What was the very first aspect of the ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ script that came to you in its conceptualization stage? Was it a specific character, setting, theme…?
Character came first.

I wanted to tell a story about an independently-minded, emotionally complex teenage girl with a vivid imagination and unique outlook on life. Growing up, I did not recognize myself in many of the female characters on screen, and I wanted to make a film that I wish I had the chance to see when I was a teenager.

“I Believe in Unicorns” is a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage girl named Davina who runs away from home with an older boy.  I wove many aspects of my own life experiences into the world of the character and ultimately chose to cast my actual mother to play a fictionalized version of herself in the film.  After an extensive audition process, I cast Natalia Dyer as the lead, who was a junior in high school at the time. Together we created a character who is raw, vulnerable, and acts based on impulses that she does not yet understand. Davina’s boyfriend is played by breakout star Peter Vack who researched his role by hanging out with teenagers at a local punk club. By incorporating details from my life as well as the surrounding environment, we were able to bring a level of authenticity to the story and build a solid foundation in which to explore the more esoteric elements of the film.

i-believe-in-unicornsAs a prolific film festival veteran, how do you (if you do) garner original content towards a certain destination or not? Is the idea of a certain festival, screening series, etc. in the forefront of your mind during the various production stages?
From early on, I knew that I wanted “I Believe in Unicorns” to reach a younger audience online in addition to the more traditional indie film crowd.  With that in mind, we created a Unicorns Facebook Page for the film during the development stage and have slowly expanded our reach to include to almost 100,000 fans.  South By SouthWest is the perfect festival to launch this film, and I am excited to follow its path into the world in the months to come.

From a visual perspective, can you explain what you wanted out of the Cinematography for the film? What was your first conversation like with its DP Jarin Blaschke?
I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of our lead character, with the visual language of the film reflecting the interior world of an imaginative teenage girl.  We chose to shoot on a combination of Super 16mm and Super 8mm film stocks chosen for their graininess and depth of color.  We selectively purchased expired stocks online, pre-fogged certain rolls of film, and did almost all of our effects in-camera using analogue techniques. In my early conversations with the DP, we discussed a variety of looks to correlate with the emotional landscape of the main character. In particular, we wanted the more fantastical sequences to embody a hand-crafted aesthetic, as if they were direct creations of her subconscious mind. We used an intervelometer for time lapse photography and extensive stop-motion animation sequences, shot one frame of film at a time. Employing a wide combination of filmic techniques, “I Believe in Unicorns” is a road trip through the stunning and complex landscape of troubled young love.

I_Believe_In_Unicorns_publicity_still02‘I Believe in Unicorns’ is a visually rich, as well as having a stylistically diverse execution. Were there any specific influences behind the conceptualization/development/production of this film? (Influences could range across medium.)
I am inspired by the work of photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann and Ryan McGinley, installation artists James Turrell, Bill Viola and Laurel Nakadate and performance artists Punchdrunk, Karen Finley and Marina Abromovich. Independent films that I love include Sophia Coppola’s “Virgin Suicides”, Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”, Terrance Malik’s “Badlands”, Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho”, Lynne Ramsey’s “Ratcatcher”, Cam Archer’s “Wild Tigers I Have Known”, Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother”, Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine”, Eliza Hittman’s “It Felt Like Love”, Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” and Catherine Breillat’s “A Real Young Girl.”

In your opinion/impression, why is SXSW a natural destination for the World Premiere of ‘I Believe in Unicorns’?
SXSW is a film festival known for discovering breakout female talents, such as Lena Dunham, Lynn Shelton, Greta Gerwig, and Brie Larson, and bringing visionary films to a creative young audience. And Austin has a long history of believing in Unicorns.

I_Believe_in_Unicorns_director_Leah_MeyerhoffAbout Leah Meyerhoff
Leah is a NY based filmmaker who is the winner of several high profile grants from IFP, Tribeca Film Institute and the Adrienne Shelly Foundation. Her award winning short films “Twitch”, “Like Our Fathers” and “Team Queen” have screened at hundreds of film festivals worldwide, eventually shortlisted for the Gothams and the Student Academy Awards.

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